This week I am featuring a guest article, written for us by Daisy Law, who wrote the powerful and important book Secret Secret, an invaluable resource for anyone involved with children. As my posts generally focus on adult mental health, I thought it was about time I feature some information on ways we can take care of children’s mental health too, not least because many of the problems I see stem from childhood experiences.
“Children can have a lot of conflicting emotions about secrecy of any kind, and being forced to keep secrets which upset them can be part of wider safeguarding issues. Yet even the most caring family members or professionals can sometimes miss signs that a child’s wellbeing is compromised, so an engaging book which speaks directly to kids themselves would fill a very specific social need. Writing Secret, Secret was one way of addressing that need.
As a former teacher, I watched growing numbers of abuse headlines from the theoretical standpoint of having completed safeguarding training and – sadly – from the practical standpoint of having taught children who were victimised by abusive adults. Within my professional life I had also had both verbal and written disclosures made to me by pupils. It seemed essential to me to give young children the message that it was OK to tell secrets, and to help them think about the different kinds of secrets which might form part of their experience. Not in a kind of grey, dour way which might rob kids of their innocence or terrify them, but in a way that prompted discussion and involvement by the children themselves. For teachers tasked with delivering safeguarding concepts to pre-schoolers or the youngest classes this filled a toolkit niche, and for some children it could be the difference between enduring or disclosing abuse.
The text for Secret, Secret is carefully crafted to use emotive language which children could relate to how they feel about different types of secrets. So the most challenging phrase focuses on a “makes your insides scared and stone-cold” kind of secret without defining what that might be for any given child. The illustration depicts a child huddled in self-protective mode with a toy for comfort, but individual kids would interpret both words and images according to their own world view.
I also sought to create an almost real world; similar to but not quite this one, so that children could enjoy a safe level of remove. The toys – or Dust Bunnies – Lilac and Little Blue were vital for this. Kids know how to talk to a toy, and there’s often a freedom in telling your darkest secrets to an imaginary friend. The threat of the faceless pirate can be a game, or it can represent how menacing adults can be to a child living in fear. Along with a bit of light relief fart humour with a whoopee cushion, this means that children can interpret and rationalise both the text and illustrations to fit their own life. So bottoms, beds, closed doors, fear, guilt, shame, and threat all feature subtly and can communicate to the subconscious, but happiness, joy, adventure, wonder, achievement and pride are there too. Parents who may be less confident discussing the potentially tricky area of disclosure can also help their children think about whether to ‘keep or tell’ secrets. This makes Secret, Secret a lovely bedtime read – especially as kids like to join in with the rhymes.
Having a rhyming mantra which even really young pre-readers could remember was a key part of my planning for the book. Yes there are observable ‘markers’ for abuse which concerned adults may note: changes in personal hygiene; aversion to eye contact; introspection or aggression and ‘acting out’ of frustration; extremes of flinching from contact or having no discernible boundaries regarding nudity and touch, etc. But the only hard and fast rule for child safeguarding is that abusers will go to great lengths to groom for, minimise, deny and hide their abuses. Kids could be targeted at any time in even the most seemingly innocuous circumstances, so messages about their rights to privacy, boundaries and a voice need to be repeated and learned if possible. The very youngest children are the most vulnerable – without school regimes and wider societal ‘norms’ to compare their life to. So I wrote a sing-song rhyme which could fit in with a library story fun-time session or book exploration within a day nursery just as easily as it slots into the primary curriculum.
At the back of the book, I’ve written some notes on the kinds of mental health or emotional issues which the general area of secrecy can give rise to for kids. There is also some advice on what to do if a child discloses more specific issues of abuse, neglect or criminality. Secret, Secret is already being used effectively by specialist child protection Police officers, social workers, charity workers and psychologists. Teachers are incorporating some of the cross-curriculum links within general lessons and also using the book for circle time discussions and subtle safeguarding, as well as leading group reading and literacy work from the rhyming text.
Whether you read the book with a child as part of therapy, prevention work or as a parent keen to open up even the trickiest subjects, Secret, Secret invites children to speak up and give their opinions. The book ends with non-leading questions, so it’s important to maintain that sense of openness for whatever discussions ensue. Children take many cues from how adults react, so whether a child makes a disclosure of inappropriate behaviour or simply wants to talk about which things it’s OK to keep private, we have to bear each developing individual in mind. Support and encouragement – verbally and from stance or facial expressions – can let a child know that they’re safe to talk with you about any subject and that can be the most important step in freeing someone from the burden of a difficult secret which they carry”.
In my next post I will feature some advice from Daisy Law on what to do when a child discloses abuse. If you are affected by the issues raised in these articles, counselling can help you to move forward. I offer a free 20-minute consultation so we can explore how I might be able to help you.
This article was originally published at: www.englishinformerinfrance.com/full-article/Secret-Secret-Helping-Children-to-Disclose